In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop roleplaying game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up. There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
The DM’s Role
You serve as everything and everyone that is not the players and their characters. You narrate the world and its’ people, present the group with challenges and determine how the actions of the players effect the world around them. While this may sound daunting at first, remember you only need to keep track of the groups’ immediate surroundings, and you only need to give a certain amount of detail in the first place. If a player asks about something you didn’t consider, make something up!
Though some people may disagree, you don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of the rules you’re using. So long as somebody in the group has a better knowledge than you, or so long as you have the books handy, you can learn on the go. A major factor that tends to make people shy from RP games is the dense volumes of rules that no one person can take in in a single sitting, many of which are only needed in context. Be sure to have a flick through of the basics, everything else will come to you as you play. There are a few general rules that ALL DMs should keep in mind when they begin their campaign:
Rule 0 – Because I’m the DM
When all else fails, remember that you are the DM and what you say goes above everything else. This can be important when upholding Rule 1 (below) or if you need to withhold certain information for later on in the game. Or more often than not it can be useful when someone is arguing the rules and everybody else stopped caring. Use sparingly however, you’re not a tyrant. For example, if you feel that spells that create food and water out of nothingness are going to make a long trip through the desert seem too easy, there’s nothing that can stop you from declaring that they are less effective out in this lifeless place, so long as Rule 1 is not broken.
Rule 1 – Fun trumps rules, every time
It’s only a game, and in this case it’s a game where rules are there to be bent and broken where situation demands it. If one player is reaping all the glory and everyone else (including you) is getting bored, it may be time to bend some rules, drop some rocks and give everyone a chance to shine. Or if a roll of the dice would kill a player who’s been having a lousy day, it’d be kinder to pretend it never happened and give them the chance to pull it back. Remember as well, you’re there to have fun too. If the characters are too powerful for you to present any kind of challenge for them, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask your group to adjust their characters. If they refuse, it may be time to find a new group.
Rule 2 – Always say yes
Just because an action is not covered by the rules does not mean it couldn’t be attempted. Let your party try to start an avalanche to crush the goblins down below if they think it’ll work, let them roll the dice and see how they fall. If they fail, it’s a valuable lesson. If they succeed it’s a hell of a story! Of course, saying “Yes” is always fun when the question is “Wait! We’re not in the way of the avalanche we just started, are we?” Everybody in the group wants to have their ideas heard, and rewarded, and if you show willingness to give creativity a chance, it’ll encourage everyone to think outside the box. It also gives you chance to flex your creativity a little.
Rule 3 – Say no sometimes
While this also ties into Rule 0, saying “No” can be a very necessary evil when some players are taking liberties. “My skill in piloting is really high, I don’t see why I can’t do a barrel roll in a helicopter!” is a perfectly acceptable time to say “No” for example, especially when that character has only ever flown planes in the past. The impossible does not suddenly become possible on a good dice roll. The rules are there for a reason, and while they can be altered to fit circumstance, those circumstances do not include “because a player thinks he can do something.”
Rule 4 – Take notes! For the love of gods, take notes!
I will say this repeatedly because I am terrible at not taking the notes I should, and maybe it’ll sink in this way. Consistency and continuity are your friends, and memory may not be all that reliable (if your memory is eidetic, then keep notes anyway, it’ll serve as proof). Keep lists of the people you’ve introduced the party to, so that you have their names handy, and can bring them back at a moments’ notice. Encourage your group to help. Make sure everyone knows what equipment they have, and how much money they’ve acquired and spent over the course of their adventure. It makes life so much easier.
My name is Joel (Terra_Phi most places) and I am an experienced DM of nearly 7 years. I also run a site called Quotesfromthetabletop.net with a friend of mine who’s much better at site-building than I am. If you’re interested in getting into tabletop role-playing, our site is full of good reasons, all the stupid and brilliant quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table.